BAGHDAD — Shiite militiamen on Monday handed over to the Iraqi government the body of a red-bearded man they claim was one of Saddam Hussein’s top military commanders.
A road in central Baghdad was closed off as a convoy of more than 25 pickup trucks escorted the van containing the body, purportedly that of Izzat Ibrahim Douri, to a vehicle from the city’s main morgue. The corpse was encased in a transparent coffin, giving the crowds and television cameras a chance to view it.
Despite the fanfare, however, there is no solid confirmation that the man inside, killed Friday in a shootout near the city of Tikrit, is Douri, the “king of clubs” in the deck of cards given to U.S. troops during the 2003 invasion to identify key members of the Hussein regime.
Some observers have expressed doubts that the 72-year-old, whose death has been announced on numerous occasions in the past, would have been on the battlefield at all, allegedly fighting alongside Islamic State militants. Douri was rumored to be in poor health and in hiding.
The delay in turning over the body to the Iraqi government has held up the verification process. The militiamen, however, said they deserved to take their time handing over the man they killed.
“We have been waiting for 35 years for this,” said lawmaker Qasim al-Araji, the head of the Badr Organization, one of three pro-government Shiite militias that has claimed credit for the killing. “They can wait three or four days,” he said of Iraqi authorities.
The body had been held since Friday by the Kitaeb Hezbollah militia, which was designated a terrorist organization by the United States for its attacks on U.S. troops during the Iraq war and now has turned its weapons on the Islamic State. Iraqi officials had expressed frustration at their inability to retrieve the body, a reminder of the weak control they exert over the array of government-allied armed groups on the ground.
“It should be here, in my institute,” Ziad Ali, head of Baghdad’s morgue, said Monday of the body before Kitaeb Hezbollah announced the handover.
Kitaeb Hezbollah has claimed to have performed DNA testing on the corpse, but the morgue says it does not have a DNA profile of Douri to establish a match. “We will try to get one from his relatives or foreign intelligence,” Ali said. U.S. sources may be able to help, with American forces having arrested Douri’s relatives in the past. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad could not confirm whether the Iraqi government had made a request for DNA samples.
In the days since the death, government-allied militias have vied for credit, despite lingering questions about the man’s identity. In an audio address earlier this year purported to be by Douri, a man is heard criticizing “takfiris” — referring to the Islamic State’s extremist ideology, indicating that he may have broken ties with the group and was raising questions about whether he would be fighting with them.
Sunni tribesmen from the town of Alam killed the man as he escaped across the river from Tikrit, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, according to several fighters who said they were there. Since their town was cleared of Islamic State militants, the tribesmen have joined various Shiite militias, including the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. The operation was a joint effort, they said.
Naim Abboudi, a spokesman for Asaib, said it delivered the body to Baghdad, where Kitaeb took possession. “We were sure it was Izzat al-Douri, 100 percent,” he said.
Whether the identity was confirmed appeared to be of little consequence to the crowd assembled in Baghdad as people jostled to take pictures of the coffin, which dripped with condensation in the heat. Some scolded people who had removed their shoes to hit the coffin, which was carried low to the ground to avoid showing respect.
“Death to America, death to Baathists,” young militiamen chanted as the van carrying the corpse was opened.
“This is a very important day,” said Sheik Qasim Sudani, a commander with Kitaeb Hezbollah, adding that he had no doubts about the man’s identity. A tattoo on the body matched one that Douri is thought to have.
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.